I'm getting excited for the Reason Rally next weekend in Washington, D.C., which promises to be the largest and most spectacular atheist gathering in recent history - possibly the largest ever. Given the numbers of people likely to show up and the corresponding amount of media coverage it could receive, it's to be expected that the rally would be targeted by Christians trying to exploit our efforts for their own publicity. We've already heard about proselytizers who intend to come and preach at us (my guess: they fail to win converts, we deconvert a few of them), as well as a gang of theologians who plan to release a book of warmed-over apologetics with a Reason Rally theme slapped on top (because apparently it's too hard for them to come up with their own title).
When I heard that the Westboro Baptist Church, the hate-cult infamous for their "God Hates Fags" signs, was going to show up and picket, I just rolled my eyes, figuring it would be just one more part of the religious circus sideshow. But my reaction was very different when I heard that an atheist group, the National Atheist Party, had initiated contact with them and effectively dared them to come:
This gathering, officially called the Reason Rally, promises to be the largest secular event in history. Surely you would not want to miss history being made.... As an official Reason Rally sponsor, the National Atheist Party will be making an information booth from which to promote our organization. Stop by and socialize if you have time.
As I wrote on Friendly Atheist, this was an act of spectacularly bad judgment, one that makes me lose a great deal of confidence in the National Atheist Party as a group. WBC exists for two reasons: to get attention by showing up at other people's events and parasitizing their publicity; and to fund their continued existence by filing lawsuits against people who assault them or localities that violate their constitutional rights.
Inviting them to the Reason Rally has no upside for us, and a large potential downside in that, if they cause a scene or if Reason Ralliers get into an altercation with them, we run the risk of having the media coverage be about them, rather than about us. In effect, it helps them to siphon off some of the publicity and attention we've worked hard to secure for ourselves. WBC could have come on their own, and might well have anyway (especially since a former family member, Nate Phelps, is speaking there on our behalf); but inviting them accomplishes absolutely nothing useful for us.
According to polls, we are mistrusted almost as much as rapists. We often define ourselves by what we are: rational, intelligent, free, champions of equality. While all of this may or may not be true, we are depicted by our opponents as anything but. Part of the intention in inviting the WBC was to show who we are not.
Seriously? If this is really what they were thinking, why not invite some pedophile priests, too?
If we want to fight negative stereotypes of atheists, which is definitely something worth doing, we should do it by presenting a positive image of ourselves. We shouldn't do it by inviting the worst religious people around just so we can stand next to them and look better by comparison. (And besides, how do they know that the media is going to follow the NAP's playbook? How do they know that reporters aren't going to write headlines like "National atheist rally extends invitation to hate group"?)
I wasn't enamored with the NAP to begin with, but this misjudgment has seriously soured me on them. Even if you accept the argument that atheists ought to have their own, separate political party (which I don't), people who have political instincts this poor shouldn't be representing the atheist community in the arena of American democracy. What makes it worse, according to another comment on Friendly Atheist, is that the NAP signed up as a sponsor of the Reason Rally and then chose to extend this invitation completely on their own, without consulting any of the event organizers - a reckless, loose-cannon stunt that gives me cause to wonder whether they're temperamentally suited for alliance-building and other vital aspects of politics at all.
When you're acting on your own behalf, you can do whatever you like. You can invite Westboro Baptist to your local Skeptics at the Pub night if you want to. But we want to make a splash on the national stage, and that means everyone who's participating needs to act in coordination. I remain hopeful that this will be only a tiny and insignificant distraction, and that the Reason Rally is going to be a big step forward for us - but clearly, there are some groups within the atheist movement who aren't ready for prime time.
Image credit: Leigh Hamilton